This wonderful novel tells the true story of Giuseppe Tomasi, the last Prince of Lampedusa, who in the 1950’s wrote his first and only novel while he was dying of emphysema. That novel, The Leopard, was rejected by two publishing houses not long before Tomasi died. When it was later published by another house posthumously, it won Italy’s prestigious Strega Prize.
As noted on the back cover, Price’s novel is very much in the vein of The Master by Colm Tóibín, one of my all-time favorites. The most central subject of each is the creative process of an aging novelist, there Henry James, late-in-life and long-since famous for his work, here Tomasi, known throughout Palermo and even Sicily, but not as a novelist. In both, the story is told in third-person, by a voice that seems to stream from the consciousness of the subject himself. Like Tóibín, Price shines a knowing light on what it’s like to struggle to portray an artistic life, armed only with words, that is truer than any other medium can muster.
Both also show what else makes their subjects tick. Here, Giuseppe has had a good life though the family’s money is all gone and he’s leaving no heirs. He has a good wife, Alessandra—a psychoanalyst who treats patients in the family’s crumbling manse on Via Butera, and Giuseppe’s cohort in a deeply romantic marriage with a long backstory. But their thirty-year marriage is strained by his failure to come clean about what his doctor is telling him.
“What he was thinking was how much he liked the gentleness, the ease of their conversation. All that would change. Everything would change between them when he told her.”
Along the way we get lush settings, of Alessandra’s home in Riga, where Giuseppe traveled to court her in the early going of their life together, and of her family’s baronial estate at Stomersee; of Giuseppe and his four sisters traveling with their French governesses through the salons of Paris, all filled with “the bizarre new paintings the critics were calling Impressionism.” We learn, too, of the tragedies and treacheries that befell the sisters in the time between the wars. The story shifts deftly back-and-forth in time, always in aid of deepening the characters and the stakes they confront as they age.
The novel is told without quotation marks to denote dialogue. This kind of thing has become tedious of late to a curmudgeon like me, but I have to say in Price’s hands it works well, aiding the effort to make us feel inside the protagonist’s head without losing us along the way. The story shifts from the main storyline in the mid-1950’s; to the early-1910’s childhood of Giuseppe and the backstory of the House of Lampedusa that will die with him; to the romance that begets a marriage but not an heir in the late-1920’s; and the late-1950’s as Tomasi struggles to complete his novel in the face of the bad news from his physician he can’t bear to share with his beloved. There’s even an early-2000’s epilogue I won’t say much about, except that it’s as charming as the rest of the tale.
I’ve never read The Leopard, just as I’ve never read the lion’s share of Henry James’s work. But Price does a masterful job of making us feel like we’re living inside the mind of a fiction writer who is onto something. As Tóibín does with Henry James, Price imagines Tomasi’s process in a way that is completely credible and surely the product of extensive research.
Lampedusa is literary fiction of the highest order, contemporary in form but telling a tale that is timeless.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .